Wednesday, September 27, 2017

James Tibbles and Michael Tsalka's recording of three of Dittersdorf's 'Ovid' Sonatas on fortepiano

Michael Tsalka (photo:Timothy K. Hamilton)
James Tibbles (Courtesy:J. Tibbles)
Austrian composer and violin virtuoso Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) was a versatile and highly popular court composer of his time. In fact, at the height of his career, Dittersdorf was considered an eminent Austrian composer and one of the leading figures of the Viennese music scene. His popularity was said to have rivalled that of Haydn, Gluck and Mozart.  Although his music was performed all over Europe, he had never managed to find a source of stable patronage as had Haydn. Sadly, his compositions are infrequently performed today, and publications of his music are hard to come by.  Born Karl Ditters, he was an enormously prolific composer; with his oeuvre including 120 symphonies, 45 operas, sacred vocal music, chamber music and keyboard music. In the mid-1780s, several of his compositions were performed in prestigious circumstances, with the palace of Emperor Joseph II becoming the venue for performances of six of his 12 ‘Ovid’ Symphonies. Today, his most familiar works are his symphonies, of which his programmatic symphonies rank high; those based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” remain his best known. Dittersdorf began writing these symphonies in the early 1780s. He had planned to write a set of fifteen, but only composed twelve. Of these, six survive, those corresponding to the first six stories from Ovid’s work. From his youth, the composer had been enchanted by the beauty of Ovid’s poetry, first writing a series of orchestral movements inspired by “Metamorphoses”, then deciding to integrate them to becoming symphonies of the standard late 18th century four-movement form, with a third movement minuet and fast tempo finale. The symphonies were premiered in 1786. James Tibbles and Michael Tsalka’s world premiere recording “Three ‘Ovid’ Sonatas for Fortepiano, four Hands” brings to light the fact that Dittersdorf himself had arranged them for four hands; the three sonatas on this recording are the only known remaining versions of the six missing symphonies. (A four-hand arrangement of one of the surviving symphonies was recently found, suggesting that the composer might have arranged all twelve.)

Fortunately, the synopses and composer’s own program notes for each sonata appear in the disc’s liner notes. In addition to Dittersdorf’s inclusion of detailed programmatic outlines in the original publication, his intention had been to print the fifteen works with newly commissioned engravings, one to precede each movement -  altogether a mammoth undertaking, aimed at producing an opulent collector’s edition. That, however, was never to be. The sonatas on this recording are as follows: “Ajax and Ulysses” (Book XIII), “Hercules Changed to a God” (Book IX) and “Jason Wins the Golden Fleece” (Book VII). In order to comprehend the composer’s multi-faceted pieces, the listener would be advised to equip himself by reading both the composer’s own notes and the three fables themselves, texts bristling with Ovid’s revisionary mythmaking and disregard of authority. However, on my listening to Tibbles and Tsalka’s performance of the three works, some of the narrative seemed to melt away as I found myself captured by the artists’ presentation of the music’s myriad of shapes and juxtaposition of textures, its daring contrasts, its tenderness and its unconventional outbursts. And yet, of course, it is program music, clearly apparent in such movements as the Recitativo and Arioso of “Ajax et Ulysse”, where Ulysses’ oration is so lifelike, so speech-like, or the poignant and sensitive Adagio of “Hercule changé en Dieu”, conveying Deianira’s melancholy so convincingly, or the majestic arrival, pomp and charisma of Jason, as depicted in the opening movement of “Jason, qui emporte la toison d’or”.

Tsalka and Tibbles’ playing is fetching. Flawlessly coordinated, fresh and clean, bold, dazzling and inspired, their reading of the works strikes a happy balance between their own spontaneity and the inbuilt composure of Classical keyboard style. Splendid passagework and contrapuntal clarity make for engrossing listening, as does Dittersdorf’s concept of “orchestrating” the keyboard. Under Tsalka and Tibbles’ fingers, the Metamorphoses’ many moods and textures emerge with articulacy on Paul Downie’s replica of an 1801 fortepiano, its true, unadulterated sound proving to be an extraordinarily fine vehicle for communicating the composer’s rich and often unconventional world of ideas, colours, textures and moods.  Recorded in Auckland, New Zealand in 2014 for the Naxos label, the sound quality of this disc is consistently good. An enterprising project, “Three ‘Ovid’ Sonatas for Fortepiano, four Hands” makes for engaging listening.

One of New Zealand’s leading players of historic keyboards, James Tibbles has an active international performing and recording career, is deputy head of the Early Music Department of the University of Auckland and serves as organist/director of music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Auckland. He founded and directed “Cantus Firmus”, a Renaissance chamber choir and, till recently, was deputy music director of the New Zealand Youth Choir.

A versatile artist playing both early keyboards and piano, Michael Tsalka maintains a busy international performing schedule and has held more than 100 masterclasses. He is currently serving as artistic director of the Geelvinck Fortepiano Festival (Holland) and, together with Dr. Angélica Minero Escobar, is completing a critical edition of Daniel Gottlob Türk’s keyboard sonatas for Artaria Editions.



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